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The reluctant partner
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 04 - 2009

Barack Obama says Pakistan is the centrepiece of America's new policy in Afghanistan. It's a bouquet filled with thorns, writes Graham Usher in Lahore
Three days after United States President Barack Obama unveiled America's new policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan a dozen or so gunmen laid siege to several hundred police cadets in an academy near Lahore. Eighteen people were killed, including eight police trainees. The compound was finally freed after an operation involving helicopters, crack commando troops and a thousand police. Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud told the BBC on 31 March the attack was retaliation for US missile attacks against alleged Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants on Pakistan's incendiary border with Afghanistan.
The attack was graphic illustration how -- seven years after 9/11 -- America's fight against Islamic militancy has bled into Pakistan's. But the hope expressed by Obama that assaults like that on the police academy would convince Pakistanis that Al-Qaeda and its "extremist allies" constitute "the single greatest threat" to their future is pious. Many Pakistanis will agree with Baitullah Mehsud that such violence is blowback from their governments' collaboration in America's losing war in Afghanistan, a collaboration Obama seeks to deepen.
The new American president devoted most of his "strategic policy review" to Pakistan, predicated on the belief that "Al-Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the US homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan. For the American people," he said, "this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world."
Obama offered Pakistan a bouquet of bright incentives sprinkled over dark threats to persuade its people that his war was also theirs. The review was welcomed by the Pakistani government, met with silence by the powerful Pakistani army and intelligence agencies and viewed with cynicism by a people who, polls show, still see America as a greater threat to their security than the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.
The incentives were clear. Obama promised "$1.5 billion in direct support to the Pakistan people every year over the five years." Pakistan President Asif Zardari said the aid would "strengthen democracy". Others too welcomed the money, especially if it is used to "build schools, roads and hospitals" in Pakistan's destitute border regions, where currently the Taliban and Al-Qaeda pay higher salaries than the government.
Even more welcome was Obama's promise to establish a Contact Group of regional countries for Afghanistan, including not only American allies like India but rivals like Russia and China and foes like Iran. Pakistan has long believed that Afghanistan's stability rests on the engagement of its neighbours. "The new Obama administration approach is very positive," said Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmoud Querishi. "They are looking towards a regional approach to the situation".
But there were barbs among the roses. "We will not provide a blank cheque," said Obama. "Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out Al-Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders. And we will insist that action be taken one way or another when we have intelligence about high-level terrorist targets."
In other words Obama will not only continue US missile attacks in the Pakistan border regions that have killed 350 people in the last eight months; he may expand them. The CIA remains convinced that "elements" of Pakistan's main military intelligence agency, the ISI, harbours the Afghan Taliban leadership in Quetta in Pakistan's Balochistan province, including Mullah Mohamed Omar. The ISI denies the charge.
America's accusation of the ISI's ongoing complicity with the Taliban is the real subtext of the review. Obama simply let others say it for him. On 25 March the New York Times cited American government officials that the ISI provides "money, military supplies and strategic planning guidance to Taliban commanders" in Afghanistan. After the review senior American military commanders confirmed "indications" of links between the agency and the Taliban and even Al-Qaeda. "Fundamentally that's one of the things that has to change," said Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
It won't. Denied officially, few Pakistani observers doubt the ISI has ties with the Afghan Taliban and other Islamic militants. Nor is this simply residue from the days when Pakistan was the Afghan Taliban regime's main regional backer. "It's policy," says a Pakistan analyst who refused attribution.
For the last seven years the Pakistan army has seen its role in Afghanistan reduced to that of a gun for hire; its task solely to police the Pakistan-Afghan border on America and NATO's behalf. At the same time it watched these powers nurture an Afghan regime not only replete with anti-Pakistani Afghan factions but allied to India, Islamabad's great regional adversary. In such a hostile environment it's no surprise the ISI regards the Afghan Taliban as an "asset" even if the latter's alliance with Al-Qaeda and Pakistan Taliban poses a threat to Pakistan no less than Afghanistan, says the analyst.
"The ISI has links with the Afghan Taliban because it wants to use them as a bargaining chip in Afghanistan. The Pakistani army wants to have a bigger say in whatever new regional dispensation America is planning. The view within the army and ISI is if the Afghan Taliban is abandoned, this will strengthen the Afghan government, as well as India in Afghanistan, at Pakistan's expense."
Amongst the "bigger say" the army wants heard is recognition by the Afghan government of Pakistan's western border and resolution of the status of Kashmir, a territory still divided and disputed between India and Pakistan. Without movement on these conflicts the Pakistan army and ISI will remain at best an ambivalent partner in America's war, at worst a saboteur and caught always between rocks and hard places. If they move too much against Al-Qaeda and Taliban in the border region, Pakistan risks the kind of carnage seen at the Lahore police academy. If they move too little they invite American intervention.
Either way "the level of violence will increase," predicts Talat Mahmoud, an ex- general and now security analyst.


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